Rum's spirited history

(CBS News) "YO HO HO and a bottle of rum," the pirates of old used to sing. And though the pirates of Robert Louis Stevenson's age are long gone, the signature spirit of the Caribbean is still very much with us. Our Seth Doane went to the source:

Sugar-cane has been harvested in the Caribbean for four centuries.

On the French island of Martinique, Gregory Vernant Neisson's family has been making their Neisson Rum for three generations. It's called "agricole" because it's pressed from fresh sugar cane juice.

"All our history of our island has been made by sugar-cane, with bad things and good things," Neisson said. "Without rum, Martinique doesn't exist."

Sugar cane was first introduced to the Caribbean in 1493 by Christopher Columbus. But it wasn't until the decadent era of Louis XIV that Europe developed a real sweet tooth.

That fueled sugar production in the Caribbean - and an ugly slave trade to support it. But it also created massive amounts of a sweet, sticky by-product of sugar - molasses - which was distilled into rum.

"At the time the Declaration of Independence was signed, there were about 150 distilleries making rum from Caribbean molasses in the New England colonies," said Ed Hamilton, who teaches about rum, and distributes it.

He once even smuggled the beverage in the Caribbean islands. We met him - where else? - behind a bar.

"Rum is a distilled spirit made from sugar cane - sugar cane juice, sugar cane molasses, or any other part of the sugar cane plant," he explained.

Most rum is made from molasses. Tons of it is trucked to the largest rum producer in the world, Bacardi. Its distillery in San Juan, Puerto Rico churns out 100,000 gallons of rum a DAY.

It's one of the most popular tourist destinations, but very few have access to a "very delicate" area, as Bacardi's master blender Joe Gomez introduced us to the yeast that's been kept since the company began.

This white, zig-zagging yeast was created from a strain that dates back to Bacardi's founding - in 1862. Founder Don Facundo Bacardi Masso is credited with developing a smooth, consistent rum, the type Hemingway popularized in his famous daiquiris.

Joe Gomez showed us where the yeast does its job - fermenting these giant 50,000-gallon vats of molasses. "This looks like an oil refinery," remarked Doane.

Once the mixture ferments for about a day, it's refined, heated and separated into giant stills.

Finally, the rum is aged, at least a year, in white oak barrels. Gomez let Doane sip some of Bacardi's finest, which sells for $2,000 a bottle.

Gomez said he is convinced making rum is "an incredible and lovely art."

Bartenders have made an art of crafting fine rum cocktails, from San Francisco to New York.

It all seems a long way from the rough sugar cane fields of the Caribbean. But Ed Hamilton says rum lets us taste paradise thousands of miles away.

"The best rums come from the Caribbean," he said. "When we dream of the Caribbean, you get thirsty, and what's going to quench that? I'm not thinking of a vodka tonic - I'm thinking rum!"

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